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GDC 2010: The Connected Future of Games
Bar Harbor
The Connected Future of Games
Speaker/s: Ray Muzyka (BioWare Corp.), N'Gai Croal (Hit Detection), Brian Reynolds (Zynga), Min Kim (Nexon America Inc.), Jason Holtman (Valve) and Rob Pardo (Blizzard Entertainment)
Day / Time / Location: Friday 3:00- 4:00 Room 306, South Hall
Track / Format: Game Design / Panel
Description: The world is moving online. This shift of content and consumers is challenging every aspect of our business, including design, pricing, distribution and marketing. Companies must not be creatures of habit as the industry evolves from products to services. The definition of games is expanding beyond what one is playing to encompass who one is playing with - and how they play. Come join our thought leaders as they explore the connected future of games.

(Not exact quotes)

Rob Pardo: Understand what you want out of connectivity. Simple as PvP, ok. Asynchronous facebook is different, but should be leveraged. Play with friends ideally, or at least share achievements

Min Kim: connected game is uncontrolled content. Combat Arms felt different due to many players speaking Portuguese language. 5-y-old kid voice hurts game immersion. People are part of design

Ray Muzyka: Social engagement is the important thing, NOT necessarily in-game. Games are a Service. Marathon, not sprint.

Brian Reynolds: Gameplay mechanics are less important than social experiences in design. Facebook games get lots of power by using your real-world friends.

Jason: Social is part of everything you do, not something tacked on at the end. Portal 2 ARG announcement driven by Portal 2 game designers.

N'gai Croal: Steam now crosslinks between Mac and PC?

Jason: Hardware barrier not important anymore. Most people would rather be fans of games, not hardware. Mac-PC interconnectivity is natural to them.

N'gai: On Facebook, it is hard to present different faces to different groups of people. Should developers attempt to implement this sort of thing?

Brian: Facebook is actually working on this. Continuing process at Zynga.

N'gai: Should Battlenet 2.0 be copied

Rob: It's a lot of work to make. We can go deeper into the games (better integration) than a service like xbox live can.

[Alexx: Stardock Impulse also working on something much like this.]

Rob: Proprietary system gives us more control.

Ray: We take a blended approach to social. Our own site, + facebook, + user telemetry. Holistic view of community. outside fan sites, Sony Home, etc... Landscape keeps changing, need to adapt

Jason: Portal 2 ARG possible on PC due to PC being an open platform. Logistically impossible on consoles with today's certification processes. Changed the actual end of Portal 1 on very short notice. "We learned this yesterday; let's act on it today."

N'gai: What are the risks of doing public betas? When you have to polish in public.

Min: Part of design process.

N'gai: Is it true that you have people playing games that are only 30% complete?

Brian: You can change it every day. Full time team still working on it. No longer disc-based world. Pre-launch is just the tip of the iceberg.

Min: "30% complete" is a meaningless concept. Is the game fun? Will players stick?

N'gai: How do you balance old content vs. new?
Brian: Have to constantly look at the new-user experience, not let it get too complicated too fast.

Rob: We are taking a big risk to revise old content. Over the years, we've gotten much better at making new content. Old content looks poor in comparison. Most hardcore players have either already joined, or decided not to, so new players are trending more and more casual. No one has done this sort of massive retrofit before.

N'gai: Ray, have you considered changing Mass Effect 2 down the road to attract more casual players?

Ray: We always rebundle, repackage. SW:TOR has us very concerned about what players will do when story content is exhausted. Donut community metaphor (from Rob), expand player base outward from core. Viral spread is very important. Need to stay in touch with fans over time, listen actively, 2-way communication. Everything is a service. Continuous iterative process, never stops.

N'gai: With an uncertain economy, layoffs, business trouble - how to staff up these ongoing 'service' projects? Can we survive?

Brian: We hired a few hundred people last year.

Jason: Audisourf has a 1-man team, but he stays very connected to audience. Torchlight is a small team. I say it's easier to be smaller; don't have to deal with closed paradigms, can get stuff out small, cheap, fast. Big companies will still make games, but now *everyone* can.

Ray: Never look at design, marketing, or community in isolation, they're all connected. We're using new business models for games. We need to change our metrics for success. Look at things like 'Lifetime revenue per user', 'margins for ongoing maintenance'.

N'gai: What's the scene in Korea?

Min: Different environment, everyone plays online in PC cafes. Inherently social environment. People see each other's screens, offer help, commentary; tech guy on call in back to fix any problems. Added voice communication to our western games to try and compensate for not having that. Created our social site, BlockParty.com, to create more player relationships.

N'gai: How do you incentive players to play nice and teach each other?

Min: People you bring in define your game. Core of hardcore people can distort experience for new players. Even if the hardcore are friendly and polite, it's still no fun as a new player to always lose badly.

Rob: Tricky to handle diverse skill levels between players. True in co-op as well as competitive arenas. Some hardcore players like to kill noobs; it is hard but necessary to prevent this. Starcraft II will only allow 1 account per purchase because of this. Recent discovery: If matchmaking is good enough to produce close skill matches every time, then every game is a nail-biter, and extended play becomes very tense and exhausting. We're considering whether or not we should deliberately vary the pace, and make some matches *un*-even. Not sure yet.

N'gai: How do you decide when to charge for content, and when to give it away free?

Jason: Don't treat it as binary, you can do both. Charging maximizes short-term revenue -- but can drive away older players. TF2 free updates always create a usage spike -- which leads directly to a sales spike. Try selling and gifting, see what difference is. Try different sizes of content releases.

Ray: New content can be designed to improve revenue and retention and payment. All three are important, but require different types of content.

(Alexx: I think what he means by 'improve payment' is 'convert pirates to paying customers'; not sure, though.)

N'gai: Do you have strategies for what proportions of these different types of content you will release?

Ray: Yes, period. Though of course, the numbers change over time with high-level priorities and corporate strategy.

Brian: Consider a graph to categorize new content types. On one axis put 'Revenue time', short-term to long-term. Giving away stuff makes community, generates long-term revenue. On the other axis: Accretion vs Retention of players. You need telemetry, metrics to make this work. Measure everything. Don't lose sight of intuitive side though.

Audience Question: Genesis of Portal 2 ARG?

Jason: I had nothing to do with it - Portal 2 team was thinking about Portal gamers, and what they would want. They consider it to be part of the game. Created puzzles that had to have human distributed solving, game spreads out into social space outside the executable. Idea not driven by business guys at all. Design team knows their customers well.

Audience Question: Will Battle.net always be Blizzard games only? Or will they ever open it up to 3rd parties?

Ray: Frequently talked about opening up to 3rd parties. It's a lot of work to just support ourselves. If we had a 3rd party release at the same time as one of our own, could we prioritize appropriately? We've never worked with 3rd parties in big way. Supporting player-made maps for Starcraft II is a small testbed for working with others.

Audience Question: Most people are part of multiple communities. They play your game for maybe 2 hours a day, but what about the 22 hours spent not playing your game. Importance of different interaction modalities?

Ray: We think of our user base as a bullseye of expanding circles: At center, those actually playing; next, players on our website, or using an iphone app related to the game; then forum reader who aren't on right now; then members of outside communities. Need to offer value to pull them back to the game. It's OK if they stay at the edge of bullseye. Embrace different forms of content. Win their hearts and minds to keep them coming back.

Jason: Don't think about just being a game developer -- we are building entertainment. The TF2 "Meet the " videos were not created just to be ads (though that was part of their function) -- they were an entertainment experience. Consider branching into comics, movies, music, ARGs.

Min: I can't make the player think about me for all those 22 hours. I have only a single relationship with the player. If the player has friends in the game, those are relationships he will spend more time thinking about, and hence about the game.

Ray: Make cool things because you want them yourself. We don't make much money off action figures, but we wanted them on our own desks.

Ray: It's ok to do something that causes a short-term monetary loss if it wins long-term fans. Building trust with fans is important.

Audience Question: What would Blizzard like to see in next-gen consoles?

Ray: Better certification process. (much audience applause) Seriously, the current ones take way too long. Patches often cause bugs that need hotfixing. When we release a new major boss fight in WoW (such as Illidan, or Arthas), we actually have designers watching the first groups going in, live. The designers then tweak the balance numbers on that fight behind the scenes, so that the next group in has a better experience!

(...distracted and missed a bit here...)

Brian: We like our free players. More players improve the experience for the players who do pay. Without the free players, the system doesn't work.

Audience Question: Expectation vs reality on release?

Brian: I come from a traditional games background. Now everything is live always. Need server redundancy. Sometimes FB breaks. Try to keep everyone having fun even when internet is breaking. This is a huge resource/staffing issue.

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If matchmaking is good enough to produce close skill matches every time, then every game is a nail-biter, and extended play becomes very tense and exhausting. We're considering whether or not we should deliberately vary the pace, and make some matches *un*-even. Not sure yet.

Yes, this. I find this fascinating, and have no idea how we'll figure out the answer.

Are you secretly working on some competitive multiplayer game you haven't told me about? Or was that some metaphorical sort of 'we'?

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